How Social Media Enabled Egypt’s Revolution: Part Three

"Freedom" photo by Gigi IbrahimIn the last of our three-part series on the role of social media in Egypt’s ongoing revolution, we speak directly with Amr Abouelleil, who is one of the growing number of international Egyptian Youth Movement members.

Abouelleil is a 36 year-old Egyptian-American writer and bioinformatics analyst living in Massachusetts with his family. He lived  his early life in Egypt, and  returns every year to visit family, including a female cousin who is active in the revolution. His most recent trip was this past April, where he witnessed the effects of Egypt’s revolutionary activity first-hand.

His take: social media has been the cornerstone of communications during the revolution. Without social media, access to factual information would be limited, and more than likely colored by government spin and propaganda. It has enabled international supporters like Abouelleil to connect first-hand with other Egyptians, and to reach out to a broader audience to both gain support for the revolution and address the misinformation that abounds in traditional media and on the internet.

We hope you find yourself as inspired as we have been by the power of social media, and the strength and passion of those using it to build a better future for their country.

Impressions Through Media: How did you get involved with Egypt’s Youth Movement?

Amr Abouelleil: I’m young, and I was moved by the events in Egypt, so I wanted to do something from here. I joined the Khaled Said group on Facebook, and soon found my cousin posting updates from the protests she attended in Egypt. I asked what we could do from here, and she told me we should just keep getting the word out, that seeing Egyptians backing them all over the world was bolstering the spirits of those sitting-in in Tahrir.

Mostly the things I did were things I think anyone who cared would have done. I attended rallies, I donated money, I reached out to media and government, I pushed back against what I saw as misinformation, and I tried to influence the discussion happening on Facebook because I felt that meant the difference between someone staying home and remaining silent or going down to Tahrir and being heard.

ITM: There seems to be an increasing number of military arrests of civilian protesters (some reports say 49 in Tahrir alone on 6/28-6/29); protesters are being detained in military jails and subjected to military investigations/trials. How did Egyptians use social media to report on these events?

AA: There has been quite a response on the social networks. My cousin took pictures of this particular incident as she was there. She used Twitter to share them. You may see them here.

She says that the army and police continue to try and characterize the protesters as ‘baltagy’, or thugs, yet the ones that are behaving as such are the police and army themselves.

This leads me to some thoughts I hadn’t mentioned to you before. The power of the social network as a mobilization tool is that it personalizes things. In this aspect, it is actually more powerful than traditional news networks. When your family member is so close the danger, and his or her friends are being beaten by police, you care a lot more about taking action than if you are told a story by an anchorman or anchorwoman about a stranger being beaten.

ITM: When we last spoke, you said “When Tunisia happened, it gave people hope, and they lost their fear. I don’t think the people organizing this revolution are afraid anymore.” Do you still believe this statement to be true in light of the recent violent clashes between the police and civilian protestors? Do you think recent events may discourage future action by supporters, or do you feel this was expected by protesters and a risk they were aware of?

AA: To the contrary, I have seen more Egypt-specific activity on pages like “We are all Khaled Said” since [the June 28th clashes]. During the revolution, the government’s response to protest only led to even more vociferous protest. Whether people are protesting in the streets or online, the response to repression is the same.

Sadly, autocracies in the middle-east seem to be following the same self-destructive playbook. They respond to peaceful protest with violent repression, thereby propagating the very thing they are trying to suppress: more protests.

So yes, I think protesters are keenly aware of the danger, and they believe the risk is worth taking.

ITM: A great deal of attention is being drawn to Syria and Libya in recent weeks, as the respective regimes continue to cut a bloody swathe through the countries’ youth and civilians. The Syrian and Libyan people appear to be embracing the example set by the Egyptian people and taking to the streets in their own protests. Are you and other tech-savvy members of the Youth Movement planning to lend your online voices to their cause as well?

AA: I definitely saw the voices of the Egyptian movement lend support to other causes, especially that of neighboring Libya. I read on Facebook about people taking supplies to the Libyan border, and saw photos of aid convoys. I recall one person asking me online how long it took to get from Cairo to the Libyan border, because they had a loved-one who’d travelled to Egypt with the intent to go to the border and lend assistance. There were protests at the Libyan embassy in Cairo as well, and protests organized in the USA. I haven’t seen as much on Syria.

There has definitely been a lot of information posted in the We Are Khaled Said group, and as I catch up on the latest news, there was a rally being organized in front of the White House on July 23rd. People are using Facebook to organize, but what impresses me most is the way revolutionaries are using YouTube to move people’s emotions. I can’t tell you how emotional I got watching calls to action in movie form during the 18 days of Egypt’s revolution. The protest movements have the right formula; if you want to move people’s feet, move their emotions.

Syrian revolutionaries are following the example, as you mentioned, and using YouTube to target particular audiences. Here is a video aimed at Americans to encourage attendance at the July 23rd protest. This video shows just how sophisticated the film-maker is in understanding how to move an American audience. I was left quite impressed.

ITM: You have said your female cousin is very involved in the revolution. Do you think social media has leveled the gender playing field, so to speak, and given women a louder and more equal voice than they may have had otherwise?

AA: I think that it has, to some extent, but the West does tend to over-simplify the situation of women in the Middle-East. They assume that all women wearing hijab had it forced on them, yet I’d heard women say that they felt the hijab made men treat them with more respect because they weren’t viewing them as sex objects. I and many Muslims, both men and women, view hijab as a choice for women, not a tool of oppression; yes, sometimes it is used as a tool of oppression, but that, in my experience, has been the exception, not the rule.

But yes, I think Facebook has allowed women to form women’s rights groups online. Women of Egypt is one example.

For me, the most iconic photos of this revolution are of women in defiance. Women are very much at the heart of this revolution, and it upsets me when Westerners say otherwise. You can find more at the Women of Egypt Facebook page.

ITM: You said when we last spoke that there is a lot of misinformation on the web, perpetuated by the bigoted, uninformed, and the Egyptian government, and that the youth movement strives to be truthful and accurate in its media campaign. Do you feel you are having success with this? How successful do you feel you would have been without the internet and social media?

I did feel like I had some success with this, to some extent. One of the places, aside from Facebook, that I spent a lot of time on was the Huffington Post. I very often scanned the comments of the stories posted on Egypt, looking for misinformation or bigoted comments. I would then counter them, and more often than not, I’d find people thanking me for my perspective. The concern is that these are people who probably agreed with me anyway.

There were individuals who seemed very set in their ways. I think the attitude might be “who is this poster that I should change my mind or believe what he says.” So it is one of the reasons I look toward more conventional outlets. Going through the process to break into publishing lends credibility to the words one writes or says.

ITM: What Facebook groups/accounts and Twitter feeds would you suggest to those wanting to become more aware of or involved in the revolutionary movements?

AA: On Facebook:

We are all Khaled Said

Egyptian Association for Change – USA National Assembly for Change

Women of Egypt

Mohamed El-Baradei (all Arabic)

Twitter:

http://twitter.com/#!/sandmonkey

http://twitter.com/#!/ghonim

I’m also going to include some YouTube movies here because its involvement should be noted:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThvBJMzmSZI

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBtYLBQPRGQ

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HGfFyqJMrk

(Ed. note: we would also like to mention Gigi Ibrahim’s photo stream on Flickr, which is the source of thousands of incredible photos of the events and effects of Egypt’s revolution, and the struggle that continues there while a new government is built.)

ITM: Any message to the people of Egypt and all supporters of the revolution? To those fighting for justice and human rights both there and elsewhere in the world?

AA: Yes. Decades of dictatorship cannot be swept away in eighteen days. The revolution’s just begun.

 

Photo credit: Gigi Ibrahim via Flickr

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